I briefly reported recently that NYU may push the Met Foods grocery store out of its spot on 2nd Avenue between 6th and 7th Streets. A CB3 meeting will be held on April 15 to give the community a chance to speak out against this act of aggression. (Read The Villager for the full scoop and sign the petition here.)
In my post, I mentioned that Ratner's used to occupy the spot. A commenter wondered if there was, indeed, a Ratner's at 111 2nd Ave and if it was connected to the 97-year-old restaurant on Delancey. I began wondering about it myself and decided to do a little research--discovering a New York family mystery in the process.
Ratner's 2nd Ave was next to the Fillmore East (now a bank) and as such became a nighttime hangout for rock-n-roll legends like Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and The Grateful Dead. The "R" is still embedded in Met Foods' floor.
It's hard to find images of this long-lost Ratner's, but if you search for the better-memorialized "Fillmore East" you will see its neon sign shining next door. In this photo, you can see Ratner's awning--and that's Block Drugs on the far left.
My search led me to street photographer Tony Marciante's amazing flickr page featuring many photos of New York in the 1960s and 70s, including a set from 1969 of a fire across the street from Ratner's. The fire is in a place called Hoagie's and So Forth, which is now the defunct Bamboo House (also check out the pet shop, Fish and Cheep's!).
The Met Foods/Ratner's site is located in the Saul Birns Building, seen in the photo below as the big, white building with many windows, bookended by Fillmore East and little Moishe's Bakery. Saul Birns, also known as Saul Birnzweig, ran the Atlantic Talking Machine Company where he sold record players, many in the shape of baby grand pianos.
He was indicted in 1915 as a "phonograph swindler" for running a fraudulent mail order scheme that, according to the Times, "promised foreigners an opportunity of hearing their native songs produced on a talking machine, which would be sent them on free trial." But after Mr. Birns got his deposit money, he would pull a switcheroo, sending a cheap phonograph to the foreigners instead of the quality machine he'd promised. The Saul Birns Building is now part of NYU's Tisch School of the Arts.
photo link and click for close up
But back to Ratner's of 2nd Ave and the question of why it's been mostly forgotten and was it connected to the Delancey place.
It was owned by Abraham Harmatz, who died on May 29, 1974, the very day after his landmark dairy restaurant closed. In the Times article it says that "Ratner's had been a Second Avenue fixture for more than 50 years, a gastronomic diadem in the crown of what years ago was called the Jewish Rialto." It also states that "it is not connected" with the one on Delancey, "although they share common ancestors and have been run by different branches of the same family."
The first Ratner's opened on Pitt Street in 1908 under brothers Jacob and Harry Harmatz and brother-in-law Alex Ratner. Ratner left the shop and "The brothers went their separate ways as the business expanded" -- Jacob opened the Delancey Ratner's in 1918 (yes, this year would have been its 100th birthday, had it survived hipsterification) and Harry went to 2nd Ave around the same time. Harry begat Abraham, cousin to Jacob's son Harold who continued to run the Delancey location and who considered reopening the 2nd Ave site after Abraham's death, but this did not come to fruition.
Ratner's Delancey, similar neon typeface
In the extensive 2004 obit for Harold Harmatz, there is no mention of uncle Harry, after whom Harold was clearly named. It says only that father Jacob opened the Delancey place with brother-in-law Alex Ratner. Even in a correction at the end, the Times says they omitted other co-owners, some Zankel brothers, but again where's uncle Harry? This Wikipedia article also omits him.
So there is a mystery within this mystery. What does it mean that Jacob and Harry went their separate ways? Why has Harry and Abraham's 2nd Ave Ratner's been, in some weird way, stricken from history? I have to wonder, did they have a rift much like the Manganaros? If it was a family feud, the Delancey branch definitely won the claim to Ratner's fame.
Other than photographs, the only concrete evidence we have of Harry and Abraham's 2nd Ave restaurant is that R embedded in the floor of Met Foods.